Category Archives: General

Apple Watch Gets Skeptical Reviews

 

The advanced reviews of the Apple Watch are out in the media this week and as already noted by many, the consensus has been far from stellar. Even among the better reviews, like Farhad Manjoo’s in The New York Times, the reviewer stops well short of recommending it for most people’s use.

The reviews are in.
The reviews are in.

While this may be disappointing to Apple and Watch buyers on the fence, Vox points out that they should be far from discouraged. The first version of many Apple products often fall short of ubiquity.

This got us thinking about other successful Apple products and their initial launches: did they all meet with the critical acclaim and commercial success that we have come to expect from the iPod and iPhone?

It turns out a number of Apple products faced similarly skeptical first impressions.

Take the iPad. With its current legacy as the most successful tablet and one that redefined personal computing, it’s easy to forget that the pre-launch was marred initially by “controversy” over the choice of iPad as its name. Business Insider and the Washington Post among other outlets gave air to complaints about the absurdity of the name and even tied it to a lack of women within Apple’s marketing team.

First impression review, while largely positive, did complain about a lack of functionality and its high price point, especially compared to the new school of budget laptops that could “do more” than the iPad could.

None of these complaints were enough to derail a successful launch and one that would go on to spur the successful iPad Mini and iPad Air versions.

Previously, the Macbook Air faced skepticism of its own. While reviewers were generally impressed, Engadget called the choice to buy one a “tough call” and noted that in Apple’s attempt to make an “absurdly” thin laptop, a lot of features were left on the cutting room floor.

At the time, the Macbook Air was just the latest edition to the fledgling “netbook” market. Yet within a few years, vastly improved Macbook Airs were the dominant player in the space and ubiquitous in both business and creative settings.

One can go back even further to the original Macintosh computer launch in 1984. While the launch of the 128k would eventually prove to be a watershed moment for the company and spawn the legions of Mac Evangelists that proliferate to this day, many reviewers were skeptical of the Mac vision, in one case labeling the new machine as a “toy.”

Disagreements over the direction of the company in the wake of the Macintosh’s failure to displace the PC as the primary personal computer of choice ultimately led to Steve Jobs departing the company.

As you can see, not all Apple product launches go smoothly. Yet Apple is betting in a number of years and a number of versions later, their Watch will be as common on their customers’ wrists as their iPhones are in their pockets. Based on Apple’s track record, some early skepticism shouldn’t be a cause to bet against them.

Tax Season Scams: Know Who’s Calling

 

If you’re getting nervous about getting your taxes done on time, you’re not alone. The April 15th deadline looms large and always causes anxiety, yet this year the anxiety may be increased by one of the most prevalent scams in US history.

Don't pay more than you have to, but don't pay the bad guys either.
Don’t pay more than you have to, but don’t pay the bad guys either.

We covered the outline of that particular scam in a previous blog post. As it relies so heavily on phone contact, you have an advantage if you’re aware that the IRS never demands credit card numbers over the phone. You can simply hang up the phone and ideally report the incident to authorities.

While this notorious phone scam has cheated over 3,000 Americans and counting out of money, tax-related identity theft was reported as the leading scam that targeted Americans. The FTC noted over 100,000 such complaints in 2014 alone, almost a third of all such complaints.

This means there is more than one type of scam that makes the rounds during the tax season. While some rely on email and even snail mail, scam artists know that the most effective means for cheating their victims is over the phone.

The immediacy of phone contact allows for an entirely different level of pressure to be applied upon the vulnerable, unsuspecting or confused. Check out Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in The Wolf of Wall Street to see this effect most vividly.

Remember: when in doubt, a simple first step in investigating a suspicious call is to verify the origin of the phone number through a reverse look-up.

Here are some of the other tactics of phone scammers during this time of year and when to hang up on them:

Asking for your Social Security number

Any organization unknown to you that asks for your social security number should raise a red flag and be a reason to end the conversation. Unless you are opening a new bank or investment account, no third party needs access to your social security number.

Thieves can use this key identifier to open credit cards and even divert your tax refund to their accounts. The IRS has over half a million such complaints like these on file, which shows that many people aren’t being careful enough with the security of their social security number.

An Invitation to High-Priced Seminars

A long-running tax-season scam involves invitations to seminars, typically costing upwards of $1,000, where attendees are given bullet-proof strategies for lessening their tax bill or avoiding certain types of taxes altogether.

Unfortunately, most of these strategies are either invalid or outdated, and completely useless when dealing with the IRS. When participants figure it out any trace of the con artists have vanished.

While many tax season scams seem outlandish, keep in mind just how many people fall victim to such incidents every year.

Keep in mind some basic tips to stay out of trouble:

  1. Know who’s calling you. Take steps to verify the phone number and that the person who is calling you is who he or she says they are.
  2. Know your own financial situation. You should know exactly how much money you owe the IRS (or don’t) and be proactive about address the situation through a payment plan, if needed.
  3. Understand how the IRS works. The IRS typically doesn’t act like run of the mill credit collection agencies. They will send correspondence through the mail and won’t harass you multiple times of day for payment.

We hope these steps will give you a leg up on the tax-season scam artists and identity thieves that will be working overtime through April 15th.

Felonies, Misdemeanors and Politicians

 

Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey was recently indicted by the Justice Department on 14 corruption counts. It is alleged that the senator intervened on the behalf of a Florida doctor’s business interests in return for lavish gifts and money over as many as 20 years.

Some politicians are motivated by the wrong reasons...and pay the price.
Some politicians are motivated by the wrong reasons…and pay the price.

While it may be surprising that a prominent politician would potentially put him or herself in such a position, it is not exactly uncommon.

While Senator Menendez maintains his innocence at the charges, some other notable politicians have actually been convicted of serious crimes, just in the past two years alone. If you don’t live in their local areas, you may have missed the news coverage.

Here is the list of some notorious politicians and their convictions over the past 24 months:

Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell

In a case that echoes the accusations against Senator Menendez, the former governor and his wife were convicted for accepting gifts from a shady political donor who then used this leverage to garner business favors from the Governor. Both McDonnell and his wife were sentenced to prison terms after being convicted on a number of counts broadly related to corruption and abuse of office.

US Representative Michael Grimm

It took awhile, but Grimm eventually paid the price for running a dirty campaign that got him elected in 2010 to serve in the US House, representing Staten Island and some parts of Brooklyn. Grimm’s funny fundraising opened the door to a wider federal investigation, which saw him plead guilty to a single count of felony tax fraud. After initially resisting stepping down from Congress, he finally resigned in January 2015. Yet to be sentenced, he could face up to 30 months in prison.

US Representative Trey Radel

Less fancy than the corruption and tax avoidance charges above, former US Representative Trey Radel got busted by buying cocaine from an undercover agent in DC in 2013. Like Grimm, Radel didn’t see the need to step down from federal office despite being a soon-to-be convicted criminal and hoped doing a stint in rehab would be enough to save his job representing the proud folks of southwest Florida. It wasn’t, though, and he was forced to resign by outside pressure. He did, however, avoid the slammer, serving just one year of probation. To top it off, his criminal record was wiped clean, too.

While the latest high-profile criminal case involving a politician is just kicking off, we hope we helped you understand that higher office doesn’t always mean a higher level of behavior.

April Fools’ Day: Ha Ha or Ho hum?

April Fools’ Day saw many high-profile brands try to prove to their customers that they have a sense of humor. Some are obviously jokes, while others were somewhat believable and may have tricked you.

All you big, silly corporations crack us up.
All you big, silly corporations crack us up.

Below is a list of this year’s April Fools’ Day Jokes from major companies and our grades for both their comic and “gotcha” value.

Google – One of the best-known pranksters in Silicon Valley came up a tad flat this year with “com.google” for mirrored search results. It may be a bit unfair to grade them harshly though, considering that everyone expects a prank from Google on April 1st and their additional joke efforts made with other products such as Maps and Inbox were decent.

Funny grade: Believability grade: D+

IKEA – The Swedish furniture company announced the launch of the KAT couch, the world’s first piece of furniture designed to be resistant to your cat’s claws. This topped the list of the enormous amount of cat-related pranks this year from brands. The prototype looks both ugly and functional, which may have made it just believable enough.

Funny grade: Believability grade: B+

Uber – Uber picked up on the cat theme, supposedly partnering with Nat Geo Wild to offer lion cub deliveries in Manhattan today. Uber’s history of unusual deliveries may have given this a bit of credibility and was at least pretty funny.

Funny grade: A-  Believability grade: C-

Microsoft – Google’s rival Microsoft launched their famous MS-DOS protocol as an app. This may have generated a chuckle but considering Microsoft’s position in mobile, is it believable for the wrong reasons?

Funny grade: B-  Believability grade: B

Netflix – Netflix launched a series of PSAs on the dangers of binge-watching programs. Some of them encouraged customers to go outside from time to time, which hurt the messages credibility. Netflix would never want its customers to go outside, unless a tablet was coming with them.

Funny grade: Believability grade: C-

You can check the full list of today’s April Fools’ Day jokes over at Mashable.

Avoid These Costly House Price Assumptions

By now everyone should be aware that house prices don’t always move rationally, and in some cases can move very irrationally to the detriment of new home owners.

In fact, according to recent data, more than 10% of all US homes with a mortgage are still “underwater” (i.e. have negative equity) as a result of the after effects of the financial crisis that occurred more than five years ago.

Prices in certain areas are going up, up, up....Photo credit: © Lunamarina
Prices in certain areas are going up, up, up….

While very few people, including the financial experts, foresaw the housing crisis and appreciated the complex effects it would have on homeowners across the country, there are some basic steps you can take as a potential home buyer to limit your risk in making what is likely the most important purchase decision of your life.

While DIY tools now allow shoppers to compare historical home prices, tax information and piece together neighborhood trends, it’s important not to view this type of data in a vacuum, nor make overly rosy projections based solely on historical data.

That’s the message of a new paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which looked at house price dynamics that led up to “bubble” situations such as in the immediate run up to the 2008 financial crisis. While the paper is fairly technical, there are a few recommendations you can apply from it which may help inform your own research and strategy for buying a new home:

1. Historical price increases do not necessarily reflect current demand

Shopping for a new home and seeing dramatic recent increases in prices may tell you it’s time to buy before prices rise even higher. Unfortunately, a decision like that could also lead you to buying in at the height of a bubble. Past home prices don’t tell you about the current fundamentals of your area’s market. Overlooking this fact is a mistake many new homebuyers made in the mid-2000s.

2. Be Wary of Multiple Big Price Increases Within Short Periods of Time

This could be a sign that prices in your city or state are becoming disjointed from market fundamentals. Before you splash down that premium, consider consulting with a professional who may have a better idea of the market’s supply and demand dynamics, which are equally as important as price trends.

3. Home prices keep rising—until they don’t

As simple as this axiom sounds, many people forgot it in the mid-2000s and compounded their errors with small or no down payments on homes they couldn’t really afford. The odds of another synchronized national housing crisis of the likes of 2008 is thankfully fairly small, but mini-bubbles can pop up in certain cities, counties or even neighborhoods.

Today, prices in metropolitan areas like San Francisco, New York and Washington DC are breaking all previous local records. Whether these are “bubbles” or an accurate long-term reflection of future demand is not for us to say, but does likely warrant further investigation before making a purchase.

Use data on historical home prices as one tool of many when making a decision on a property purchase. Consider your needs for the property, time horizon and other factors before pulling the trigger, particularly in areas where home prices have risen substantially in short periods of time.

Hang Up on this IRS Scam

 

According to the Associated Press, a nationwide tax scam has cost Americans over $15 million and counting since 2013. In fact, testimony from a Treasury deputy inspector general notes that these scammers are operating the largest and most pervasive scam on record.

Don't let fake IRS agents separate you from your money.
Don’t let fake IRS agents separate you from your money. Photo credit: Chris Potter

The odds are you or someone you know could be or already has been targeted. As tax season approaches deadline day, it’s likely that this scam will become even more frequent immediately after April 15th.

Here are some tips from the professionals on how to avoid getting ensnared in this IRS scam:

  1. Know that the IRS does not initiate contact by phone. They will send multiple pieces of correspondence by mail detailing any back taxes or fine you are responsible for.
  1. The IRS does not act like debt collectors. The hallmarks of this scam invoke aggressive and even threatening accusations over the phone, in the vein of the worst types of debt collectors. The IRS does not use the phone this way and would also not use aggressive language to collect immediately on back taxes.
  1. The IRS does not demand payment by debit or credit card over the phone. The scammers in this case are pushing their victims to load up prepaid debit cards to then transfer the money to an account over the phone. This is not a practice that the IRS partakes in.

This scam has been so successful because it plays on people’s fears and ignorance about official procedures. The most important thing you can do is stay up to date on your records and be 100% sure of your current standing with the IRS and other government agencies that collect taxes.

With that confidence and your knowledge of how the IRS actually works, you can feel confident to hang up on any fake IRS agents who may be looking to part you with your money this year.